Is There a Relative Advantage to Instructional Software?

Anytime we as teachers look at changes we can make in the classroom, we need to explore the relative advantage of the change. When teachers compare the benefits and the cost of the instructional software to the current method of teaching being used to address the topics in question, this is defined as determining the “relative advantage”. (Roblyer and Doering, 2010, pgs. 55-58)  Teachers need to ask ourselves, is this change going to provide a benefit to our students’ learning and not get caught up in just using technology because it is exciting?  There are five categories of instructional software: drill and practice, tutorial, simulation, instructional, and problem solving.  Each category has several relative advantages that may apply to students in the classroom.

Drill and practice software provides practice exercises in a particular subject area.  These exercises are often repetitive in nature such as addition or subtraction facts in math or spelling words in Language Arts.  They are presented one at a time with feedback being provided to the user immediately.  The feedback provided may vary greatly from a simple “yes” or “no” to animated displays.  Drill and practice software often functions as flash cards, charts for students to fill in, branching drills which move students to different mastery levels when a prescribed number of questions are answered correctly, and some offer extensive feedback when a student gets a question wrong.  It is important that the user can control the presentation rate, that the software can correctly judge if answers are correct, and feedback must be quick and simple so that students are not bored by feedback that is too elaborate and so engaging that they miss questions on purpose.  The relative advantage of drill and practice software includes immediate feedback for students, motivation that engages students to practice, and time savings for teachers allowing students to receive some individualized practice.   Drill and practice is very helpful in addressing remediation for prerequisite skills that students may need to work on.  Teachers are able to provide each student with work that addresses each student’s individual needs.  It is important that teachers set time limits so that students don’t become bored with the repetitive activities that often are part of drill and practice.  It can also be helpful to set up learning stations that students can use as time permits through the day.  My choice for drill and practice in my 7th and 8th grade pre-algebra class is IXL Math.  Teachers are able to assign exercises for current content or for remediation as needed.  Teachers are provided with reports that show student achievement to help determine pacing. CK-12 is also a very useful drill and practice software.  When paired with Edmodo, teachers may assign content specific homework for students and receive a report on their results.

Tutorial software provides instruction over an entire sequence on a topic.  Students should be able to learn all aspects of the topic without any other resources than the tutorial.   Tutorial software should include some type of assessment to check understanding which also makes tutorial software easily confused with drill and practice.  Tutorial software can be categorized as either linear or branching.  Linear tutorials progress through the same lessons for all students. Branching software is more sophisticated allowing alternate paths depending on students responses.  Students need to read fairly well since tutorials are normally stand alone programs and the instructions are normally text on the screen.  Qualities of a good tutorial include: extensive interactivity, thorough user control, appropriate pedagogy, adequate answer-judging and feedback capabilities, appropriate graphics, and adequate recordkeeping. (Roblyer and Doering, 2010, pg. 87)  The relative advantages of tutorials are much the same as drill and practice software.  Due to the extensive nature of tutorial software, it is often difficult to find well-designed tutorials.  Another disadvantage is that tutorials often offer only one instructional approach.  Teachers may choose to use tutorial software when students need to revisit specific concepts.  More advanced students may benefit from the ability to move through a tutorial at their own pace.  Tutorials are also useful if no teacher is available.  In areas where there may be a shortage of teachers or the number of students wishing to take a course may not be adequate to fund the salary of a full-time teacher, tutorials can be very useful tools.  Tutorials are best used when assigned individually and will work well in learning centers allowing students to work at their own pace. Khan Academy is a very popular example of tutorial software.  A constantly growing list of tutorials are available on many different topics.  Teachers may use the tutorials as part of class instruction or for students to review outside of the classroom for review or remediation.

Simulation software is designed to teach how a system works allowing the user to choose which tasks to do and what order to do them.  Simulations fall into two categories: “those that teach about something and those that teach how to do something.” (Roblyer and Doering, 2010, pg. 90)  The relative advantages of simulation software include: the ability to slow down or speed up processes, involving students in the decision making process, make hazardous situations safe and impossible situations possible, save money and/or resources, allow repetition of tasks with different variations of activities to observe the results, and allow observations of difficult processes.  There is criticism that simulations cannot replace hands-on experience and that complex systems are often difficult to replicate with software.  There are situations where simulation software is a better alternative than actual hands-on activities.  If adequate lab equipment or materials are not available, simulation software may be a cost effective alternative.  Simulations may also be an alternative to activities that would be too dangerous or complex.  Simulations provide a more comfortable environment for some students than actual role play situations, allowing the student to be more comfortable and imaginative in their participation.  When simulations are used as an introduction to new material, it may provide students with engaging information that encourages them to dig deeper into the subject matter.  Students also have the opportunity to engage in collaboration which is a growing skill in today’s job market.  There is growing information about teachers who are using the very popular game Minecraft as part of classroom instruction.  In a pre-algebra classroom, students use all types of math skills to build scenarios in minecraft.  They may be grouped together to foster collaboration.

Instructional games take elements of gaming and entertainment and apply them to learning activities.  The ideas of competition and game type rules are applied in a program that includes learning activities.  There are some criteria to look for when determining the quality of instructional software.  These include: appealing format and activities, instructional value, physical dexterity that is reasonable, and social, societal and cultural situations that are appropriate for all audiences.(Roblyer and Doering, 2010, pgs. 94-95)  Elements of game play make instructional software more engaging and motivating for students providing the relative advantage of motivation and engagement.  Teachers may choose to use instructional software in several different ways in the classroom.  Many instructional software products implement a strategy similar to drill and practice which allows students to practice those repetitive skills while in a “game” type situation.  These types of programs can often be used to replace worksheets or repetitive homework assignments.  Instructional software also fosters cooperative group working skills allowing students to collaborate with each other to solve problems.  Teachers may choose to set up learning centers and allow students to play “games” as a reward for certain achievements.  Instructional software should be used sparingly and should involve all students.  Teachers should also make sure they tie the content skills being learned outside the “game” to the learning taking place in the software.  BrainPOP offers games in several different subjects.  There are many games available that address math standards for pre-algebra.  Students enjoy the competition and rewards gained playing through the different games available.

Problem-Solving software is similar to simulations and instructional games but is designed to focus specifically on problem-solving skills.  Problem-solving software comes in two varieties: content-area problem-solving and content-free problem-solving.  Teachers should look for software with a clear link to developing specific problem-solving abilities and the problem formats should be both interesting and challenging.  The relative advantages of problem-solving software include: visualization of mathematical problem solving, improved interest and motivation, the ability for students to see how content information applies to actual problems.(Roblyer and Doering, 2010, pgs. 99-101)  Teachers may integrate problem-solving software in the classroom to help teach the component skills needed for problem-solving, to move students through the problem-solving process, and to encourage collaboration among students.  Mathalicious offers different math lesson for teachers that address interesting “real-world” scenarios.  Lessons are searchable by subject or standards.  The lessons are designed so that teachers may work through the lessons with students in class.  Interesting video and graphics make learning the skills needed to solve the problems interesting and engaging.  Teachers may choose to group students to foster collaboration as they work to solve the problems.

Evaluation of instructional software is vital to the successful implementation in the classroom.  The process of evaluation and selection can be very time consuming for teachers.  There are several resources available for teachers as they evaluate and select instructional software.  Some of these resources are listed below:

Goyne, J. S., Mcdonough, S. K., & Padgett, D. D. (2000). Practical Guidelines for Evaluating Educational Software. Clearing House, 73(6), 345.

How to Evaluate an Educational Software

Ways to Evaluate Educational Apps

Tool Software Evaluation Form

Checklist for Evaluating Tech Tools, Apps, Software, and Hardware


As I reflect on the information from this week, I hope that I have the opportunity to integrate more technology into my 7th and 8th grade Pre-Algebra class.  As I try to engage the students in my classroom, I believe that it is beneficial to use technology tools that will demonstrate the application of the content I am teaching as well as engaging them in methods of learning that involve the technology they use every day.  By integrating technology in the math classroom, students are better able to visualize how math is applied to all areas of their lives.  Technology allows demonstrations virutally that are impossible to bring into the classroom otherwise.  Technology is also fun.  I have always thought math is fun so maybe with the use of some of these great technology tools, math will be fun to my students as well.

Roblyer, M.D. & Doering, Aaron H.(2010). Integrating educational technology into teaching, Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.


One thought on “Is There a Relative Advantage to Instructional Software?

  1. It is so interesting that you remark how students will intentionally get an answer wrong because the feedback is so engaging. If that ideas was mentioned in our book, I missed it, so I think it may be your unique interpretation. This is something I will actually do- if I’m doing a tutorial, I will often choose the wrong answer so that I can read the explanations that are given as feedback. Sometimes the most interesting or most clear advice is given in the feedback blips.

    I also like how you set up the blog to cater to more than one teaching area. Since you are going to be the Technology Coordinator, you will have to be aware of multiple subject areas. It looks like you are well on your way to doing the research your teachers will be expecting you to do.


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